San Andreas


Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People's Elbow.

Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People’s Elbow.

(2015) Disaster  (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue, Colton Haynes, Todd Williams, Matt Gerald, Alec Utgoff, Marissa Neitling, Morgan Griffin, Breanne Hill, Laurence Coy, Fiona Press, Dennis Coard, Simone Kessell. Directed by Brad Peyton

When the earth starts to shake and buildings begin to fall, who are you gonna call? Dwayne Johnson! When the fault cracks in two which the tsunami rolls into, who’ll see you through? Dwayne Johnson!

Disaster movies were a thing of the 70s for a short while, all-star casts of big stars put at risk by natural or man-made disasters. Irwin Allen was the king of these films, and things like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno were big box office champs back in the day. These days, most of those disaster effects are done on computers which you’d think would save money in the budget for amazing casts but here in this 21st century disaster movie, after legitimate stars Johnson and Giamatti as well as next-tier stars Gugino, Daddario, Panjabi and Gruffudd, things get a little thin. Where’s William Holden when you really need him?

Ray (Johnson) is a LAFD rescue helicopter pilot whose devotion to his job increased exponentially when one of his daughters drowned during a rafting trip and he was unable to save her. His remaining daughter Blake (Daddario) adores daddy, but he emotionally shut down after the tragedy and after trying and trying his wife Emma (Gugino) is now his ex-wife and is moving into the palatial mansion of architect Daniel Reddick (Gruffudd) who seems like a genuinely nice guy. When a massive earthquake in Nevada ruptures the Hoover Dam, forcing an all hands on deck call to any rescue helicopter pilots in the neighborhood, Ray has to cancel on a planned road trip to take his baby girl to college. She instead hitches a ride to San Francisco with Daniel. And Emma takes a lunch with his bitchy sister (Minogue).

That’s when Big One #2 hits, in Los Angeles. Ray is forced to save his own wife from a collapsing high rise and when they realize that Big One #3 is going to hit San Francisco at any moment – thanks to earthquake predicting software developed by Dr. Lawrence (Giamatti) whose partner (Lee) was buried alive in the Hoover Dam thing. Now Ray and Emma are heading up to San Francisco to rescue Blake who has been abandoned by the as-it-turns-out cowardly Daniel and has hooked up with a lovestruck Brit named Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother Ollie (Parkinson).

The effects-heavy San Andreas features lots of buildings and other structures collapsing, people crushed by fallen masonry, a tsunami that takes down the Golden Gate Bridge and Ray driving anything that isn’t nailed down be it on land, in the air or at sea. There’s plenty of shark jumping and WTF moments that will turn your brain into peanut butter if you think about it too hard. My advice is, just don’t think about it and go with the flow.

Other than the adequate and occasionally delightful effects, the big draw here is Johnson. He’s not the most accomplished actor on any given set, but he doesn’t need to be, particularly on movies like this. He gets by on his irresistible charm, his rippling biceps and his genuine heart. You can’t help but like the guy no matter who he’s playing; it will be interesting to see what he does with a villain role in the upcoming comic book hero movie Shazam. Here even at the movie’s most godawful plot moments, he rescues it just by being himself.

Writer Carlton Cuse (Lost) doesn’t deliver his best work here which is kind of a shame; I would have loved to see his ability to draw up fascinating characters in impossible situations transplanted here, but the movie is just so engaging in terms of effects and disaster goodness that it’s hard to really fault Cuse for not bringing on the A game here. This isn’t going to break box office records, nor is it going to redefine the summer blockbuster. While it could have used a more judicious hand in the editing room – dodging falling buildings repetitively gets pretty old after awhile – it nonetheless accomplishes what most of us are looking for this time of year which is a fun ride at the movie theater.

REASONS TO GO: Dwayne Johnson saves the day. Fun summer entertainment.
REASONS TO STAY: Paint-by-numbers plot. Probably a good half hour too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Intense action, disaster mayhem and a few choice curse words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riddick’s San Francisco headquarters is actually the Bank of America building, the same building (enhanced with optical effects) that was used for the 1974 disaster classic The Towering Inferno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earthquake
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Peace, Love and Misunderstanding

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Soul Surfer


Soul Surfer

Helen Hunt doesn't even realize that the wrong husband is next to her.

(2011) True Life Drama (TriStar) AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo, Lorraine Nicholson, Jeremy Sumpter, Sonya Balmores Chung, Ross Thomas, Chris Brochu, Craig T. Nelson, Branscombe Richard. Directed by Sean McNamara

 

It is a fact of life that things happen, sometimes terrible things. We want our lives to be sweet and easy but they never are. You can call it God’s will, or bad luck but we are often put into positions where in order to achieve our dreams we must first re-imagine them.

Bethany Hamilton (Robb) lives in paradise. It may be called Hawaii to you and me but she knows as most of those native to those beautiful islands that there are few places on Earth like it. The Pacific swells that rage against the nearby beaches are her heartbeat, and she lives to put board to water and foot to board. She has a talent for surfing and with her blonde hair blue-eyed good girl next door looks, she is already attracting endorsement deals and is a sure bet to turn pro.

When she is attacked by a shark and loses an arm, her plans are put on hold. The media descends on her family and their faith is tested. Dad Tom (Quaid) wants to fix things, while mom Cheri (Hunt) prays for guidance, unable to fathom God’s plan when a spirited good-hearted teen’s dreams are cut short so cruelly.

At first Bethany gives in to depression and despair but gradually realizes as her plight gets more and more coverage, that she is no longer living just for herself and her dreams. Indeed, the dreams of millions of physically challenged people are riding on her as their inspiration to continue and achieve. With that kind of impetus behind her, how could she fail to at least try?

This is of course based on a true story. Hamilton to this day continues to be one of the world’s top surfers and her story is inspirational, not just to those who have physical challenges but to those who don’t as well.

Now, the actual Hamilton family are devout Christians (Bethany often makes personal appearances at churches and for church youth groups) and there was some fear from Hollywood executives early on that a faith-based film might alienate secular audiences and I have to say myself I don’t go to the movies to be preached to. However I was pleasantly surprised – the issues of faith are handled as a natural part of the Hamilton’s lives and I never felt at any point like a message was being pushed on me. If anything, the message is more secular than religious – while Bethany’s faith sustains her and comforts her, it is her desire and will to compete that conquers the mountains that were laid before her. I found that refreshing.

Robb is a sterling actress growing graceful and beautiful as she moves into her teen years. With wonderful performances in Bridge to Terabithia and Race to Witch Mountain, she has a bright future in the business if she chooses to continue along that path. She largely carries this movie, imbuing the real Bethany’s determination and faith into her performance. She’s deserving of the kudos she’s been receiving for the role.

Oscar winner Hunt is a welcome addition to the cast; an actress this good should be around more often. I do hope we see more of her – while she doesn’t have a lot to do, she does have a  couple of scenes that are really effective, elevating the role. The likable Quaid is once again…err, likable. With maybe the best grin in the history of movies, he’s had a soft spot in my critical heart for more years than probably either of us would like to admit. He’s another actor that I wouldn’t mind seeing get more compelling roles.

Now I’ll admit that surfing isn’t really my thing and surfing movies even less so. The mysticism that some of the sport’s faithful attribute to it is something I don’t really tap into. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the draw of the ocean in the same way, nor does it mean I don’t appreciate the athleticism, the sacrifice or the passion that comes with the sport. It just doesn’t always translate well to the screen and while the surfing sequences are solid, they aren’t enough to get me hooked.

The ending is a bit cheesy and in my opinion does the movie a disservice. Creating a rival (Chung) that treated her like dirt was unnecessary, as is the conversion from rival to admirer. The target audience here is obviously kids from about 11-16 and girls in particular. I think that that audience would have been just as inspired by Bethany’s accomplishments without the jealous rival. She wasn’t needed – there were obstacles a ‘plenty for the real surfer girl.

Bethany and her parents get the lion’s share of character development here and the movie suffers for that too. Too many cliché characters spoil this soup, as does the pulling of the rival onto the medal stand. I don’t know if that actually happened but it seemed disingenuous the way it was portrayed here. So to sum up, a solid movie that is inspirational in places and serves it’s teen and pre-teen audience nicely, one which any family mindful of the values being presented onscreen should feel secure in presenting to their kids.

WHY RENT THIS: Great surfing footage. Robb does an impressive job. Displays the family’s faith without becoming preachy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit heavy on the schmaltz. A few cookie-cutter characters added for dramatic value and some factual inconsistencies..

FAMILY VALUES:  The shark attack sequence may be a little too intense for impressionable sorts (although it isn’t especially gory or realistic) and some of the thematic elements might go over the heads of the smaller set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog in the movie is Bethany’s own dog Hana; she makes a cameo appearance herself carrying a large box in the Thailand relief scene and her family can be seen just behind Quaid and Hunt in the church scene and Bethany performed the surf stunts for Robb.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on how Robb learned to surf and, eventually, inhabit the role of Bethany. There are a couple of featurettes on the real Bethany Hamilton, including some actual camcorder footage shot by her brother.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44.3M on an $18M production budget; the movie had a slightly profitable theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

Hereafter


Hereafter

Despite how it looks, Matt Damon is NOT sleepwalking his way through this movie.

(2010) Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr, Richard Kind, Thierry Neuvic, Lyndsey Marshal, Derek Jacobi, Steve Schirripa, Rebekah Staton, Declan Conlan. Directed by Clint Eastwood

There are three things we all have in common; we were all born, we all are living our lives and all of us will eventually die. The last is perhaps the most terrifying thing in our reality; when we die our existence is over…isn’t it?

Marie LeLay (de France) is a popular French television journalist who is on assignment (or is it vacation? The movie isn’t too clear about that) in an unnamed South Pacific/Indian Ocean coastal city. She is there with her producer Didier (Neuvic) whom she is also romantically involved with. He’s a bit of a lazy slob; it’s their last day in paradise and he hasn’t gotten gifts for his children. Good-naturedly (and perhaps wanting one last crack at the marketplace) Marie goes downstairs to the town to shop.

As she is shopping, she is startled to see a wall of water coming at her – the town is being hit by a tsunami. She tries to run, but there’s no outrunning a wave like this. She is sucked under and dragged out towards the sea. She fights with all her strength to try and get a handhold anywhere, but she is struck in the head by debris and sinks to the bottom. Game over, no?

No. A pair of men pull her out of the water and try to revive her. She eventually comes to but only after having an experience she can’t explain, one with white light illuminating darkness, strangely familiar figures in the light and a sensation of peace.

The experience shakes her up. After reuniting with Didier (who was on a high enough floor in the hotel to not even get his feet wet), she goes back to Paris to resume her duties and finds herself distracted. Didier urges her to take some time off and write the book on Francois Mitterrand that she always wanted to write. Realizing she isn’t at the top of her game, she reluctantly agrees.

In London, a pair of twin brothers Marcus and Jason (the McLaren brothers, who alternated in the two roles) are desperately trying to keep social workers from discovering that their mother Jackie (Marshal) is messed up on drugs and alcohol again, knowing that if the authorities discover the truth they’ll be taken away from their mother for sure. With a bit of luck they are able to fool the social workers. Relieved, Jackie sends Jason, the more outgoing of the two, to the chemist’s to pick up a prescription, one that will finally begin the rehab process for her. Jason and Marcus are absolutely overjoyed.

That joy is short-lived. A group of young street thugs spy Jason talking on a cell phone and they want it, as well as the drugs he’s carrying. They chase him down the street, and Jason runs into traffic to escape, directly into the path of a lorry. He’s killed instantly despite Marcus’s pleas to come back (Marcus heard the whole thing over the phone and went running out to save his brother, fruitlessly as it turned out).

In San Francisco, George Lonegan (Damon) is annoyed at his brother Billy (Mohr). Billy has brought over a client named Christos (Kind) for a reading. Not the book kind of reading; you see, George is a kind of a psychic. His readings involve communicating with the dead, and Christos wants to talk to his late wife in the worst way.

The trouble is, George has given the life of a psychic up. He was once fairly well-known – a book was even written about his gifts – and he had a thriving business with a website and everything. However, the cost to George’s soul was too great, and he yearned for a normal life. He is setting out to provide himself with just that, taking a job in a sugar factory and taking Italian cooking lessons from a chef (Schirripa) in a local learning annex, meeting a sweet and somewhat chatty girl named Melanie (Howard) in the process. He is just beginning to really fall for her when she discovers the nature of his talents, which leads to him discovering something about her that she had wanted to keep buried.

All three of these people, touched in one way or another by death are on paths that are getting ready to intersect. What will happen when they do is anybody’s guess.

I had very high hopes for this movie. After all, Eastwood has become the most consistently high-quality director in Hollywood, and writer Peter Morgan has such acclaimed works as The Queen to his credit. The subject matter is also intriguing, to say the least.

Unfortunately, I was left feeling kind of flat by the whole thing. There doesn’t seem to be much insight going on, other than to say that most people who spend too much time thinking about death are forgetting that they have a life. While Damon and de France are solid in their parts (particularly Damon who turns into one of the most compelling performances in his career), the McLaren brothers – who are amateur actors – seem a bit overwhelmed by what they’re doing. Unfortunately (and I hate to criticize child actors), they were terribly inconsistent in their performance. At times there seemed to be some talent there; at others, they seemed completely lost. Eastwood deliberately cast non-professionals in the role because he didn’t want veterans of “Child Acting 101” to deliver an unbelievable performance. While I agree with the sentiment, unfortunately he needed someone along the lines of a young Haley Joel Osment or even an Abigail Breslin to really make that part of the movie work.

The opening tsunami sequence is absolutely astonishing, giving viewers a you-are-there feel and is some of Eastwood’s best filmmaking work to date. Not known for big special effects shots and computer imaging, I thought this scene had enormous power and really set the movie up quite nicely.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really go anywhere and the ending kind of peters out. Eastwood has said in several interviews that he didn’t want to create an afterlife movie, but rather begin a conversation about the afterlife and whether or not it exists. The movie seems to opine that some sort of consciousness remains when the body dies but whether or not this is Heaven, Valhalla or just the brain shutting down is left up to the discretion of the viewer and in that sense, the movie works marvelously. Still, I felt a bit let down at the end and while perhaps I just wasn’t on the same page as Eastwood for this one, I think it fair enough that my reaction be part of the review. Eastwood is a master craftsman and this movie certainly reflects that craft, but it left me feeling…well, nothing.

REASONS TO GO: The opening scene is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and Damon puts on one of the performances he’ll be remembered for.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit vague, and leaves one wondering what the purpose of the movie is.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images regarding death and the afterlife, and a few bad words here and there but for the most part, suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes depicting the tsunami were filmed in Lahaina, Hawaii.

HOME OR THEATER: The opening scene should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: MegaMind

Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)


Ponyo

Escaping a tsunami in a small car is never a good idea.

(2008) Animated Fantasy (Disney) Starring the voices of Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Frankie Jonas, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Cloris Leachman. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Perhaps the most honored and beloved director of Japanese anime is Hayao Miyazaki. An Oscar winner for Spirited Away, he’s also directed some of the most enchanting and beloved anime films ever, including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Tortoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service and my personal favorite, Princess Mononoke among others. He remains one of the few feature animation directors working exclusively in the hand-drawn animated style that established Disney (who distributes the output of his Studio Ghibli here in the U.S.) and is as imaginative a director working anywhere in any medium today.

His latest may well be one of the most beautiful animated features in recent memory. It begins with a 5-year-old named Sosuke (Jonas) finding a goldfish trapped in a jar on the seashore which he names Ponyo (Cyrus) – the fish, not the seashore.

But Ponyo is no ordinary fish. She is the daughter of Fujimoto (Neeson), a sea wizard with incredible powers who has renounced his humanity to rule under the sea. When Sosuke takes her from her natural environment, it causes the balance between the sea and the land to be sundered and soon tsunamis are buffeting the small port town where Sosuke lives.

He brings the fish to his mother (Fey) who is having issues with her husband Koichi (Damon), a merchant sailor who is away more than he is at home. When he visits the retirement home his mom works at, a trio of the residents (Tomlin, White and Leachman) there realize immediately that Ponyo is no ordinary fish.

Sosuke has a paper cut and when Ponyo licks the cut and magically heals it, the taste of human blood allows Ponyo to take on the attributes of a human and she magically grows arms and legs. This causes further imbalance which even Fujimoto is powerless to prevent.

When Sosuke and her mom get separated by the tsunamis, Ponyo transforms a toy boat into a large sailing vessel to go searching for her in the now flooded town. However, the cost of all this magic is taking its toll on Ponyo and the continued imbalance between sea and land threatens to completely undo the world – unless Sosuke and Ponyo can intervene.

The tale told is a simple one, and it is meant to be appealing not just to the adults who make up the core of Miyazaki’s audience to date, but also to small children, a market he hasn’t really gone after up to now. Quite frankly, he’s successful at capturing both with this film which is destined to be considered among his very best.

Miyazaki’s imagination seems boundless, and his underwater scenes are filled with strange beauty, the kind heretofore found in nature films but given a touch of wonder that is entirely man-made. Miyazaki is telling on one hand a cautionary tale; the sea bottom is badly polluted with trash and sludge, while above the waves the adults are blissfully (and perhaps criminally) unaware of the damage their society is inflicting on the sea, which doesn’t endear them to the powerful creatures – including Ponyo’s mother, Gran Mamare (Blanchett) who is literally a goddess.

There are other lessons as well, with the familiar “we all must be who we are, not who others want us to be” which is a staple in children’s films, but certainly the ecological issue seems to be the one most pointedly presented.

Miyazaki isn’t all about the fantastic, however; the human characters have a great deal of depth to them. Sosuke’s parents aren’t the perfect couple; they squabble and bicker, and neither one is wrong and neither one is right. Lisa is frustrated with having to raise her child essentially alone, and Koichi certainly isn’t doing what he does by choice; the family needs the income he brings in to survive, and when additional work is available, he has no choice but to take it. It’s a problem that isn’t an unfamiliar one in tough economic times.

Even peripheral characters like the three elderly women from the retirement home have distinct personalities and play crucial roles in the story. The mark of a great storyteller is not that he creates characters that move the story along (how often do we see characters in movies both live action and animated that exist only to perform a singular function in the film) but that he utilizes the characters he has to make the story flow; in other words, the characters belong in the story and they drive what happens in it, rather than exist as a reaction or an action within that story. It’s all a bit complicated, I know, but trust me – I can recognize great writing when I see it.

Japanese culture has a thing about cute; you can see it in everything from Hello Kitty to Sailor Moon. At times, that cuteness goes over the top and makes you feel like you just drank a gallon of Kool-Aid with twice the sugar added; you just want to gag. Miyazaki is not known for embracing that cultural element, but it does appear from time to time in this movie, and while I can understand that it helps to make the movie relatable to small fries, I have to admit as a curmudgeonly middle aged man it was annoying to me.

Be that as it may (and it is an admittedly personal bias) I can still give this movie a very strong recommendation. For those who might be skeptical about Japanese anime, be assured that there are no subtitles here; the story is recorded completely in English with an all-star cast as you can see in the credit list at the top of the review. Disney has made a great effort to make this very special movie work in an American market, hiring Melissa Matheson, screenwriter of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to pen the Japanese translation, and the opening and closing sequences were redone to be more appealing to American audiences (on the Blu-Ray if you choose the Japanese language version you will see the Japanese openings; if you choose the English language you’ll see the American version).

This is a marvelous movie whether an animated feature or not; you will probably not see a movie so beautifully drawn as this for a very long time. Those who are admirers of Miyazaki have probably already seen it, and will no doubt look to purchase the Blu-Ray version which is packed with features enough to keep you occupied for awhile. Those unfamiliar with his work can do worse than to start here. It’s well worth your effort to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Miyazaki creates an imaginative world that you want to explore. This is one of the most beautiful animated films of the past decade. The characters are strongly written and are more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts to advance the plot along.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit simplistic, aimed squarely for younger children. The Japanese penchant for the overly cute rears its head here.

FAMILY VALUES: Although there are some scenes of jeopardy for Sosuke and Ponyo, the movie is certainly meant for small children and can be recommended for all audiences on that basis.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sosuke is based on Miyazaki’s son Goro when he was five years old.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not surprisingly, the Blu-Ray version of the movie is chock full of interesting features, including a visit to the Studio Ghibli compound, with one specific feature showing how the establishment of a day-care center led directly to the creation of Ponyo and very nearly became a setting for the movie. We also visit the village on the Seto Inland Sea that became a model for the one in the film, and examine the father-daughter relationship at the center of the film, and how it relates to Japanese culture. There is also a marvelous interactive guide to the World of Ghibli, which depicts the various films released by the studio as locations on an island, several of which you can visit (and is tied in to the video release of three other Ghibli films for the first time in the U.S.).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $201.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a major hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Montana Amazon